Lawsuits Aimed at Trump's Business Ties a Growth Industry

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 10, 2011. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

From nongovernmental advocacy groups to elected officials, plaintiffs challenging President Donald Trump over his business holdings are lining up in federal courts.

On Wednesday, nearly 200 lawmakers, all of them Democrats, filed a lawsuit alleging Trump is continually violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause by receiving payments to his businesses from foreign governments. The newly famous clause, along with a domestic counterpart, is the subject of three such lawsuits against the president. A fourth lawsuit, filed on behalf of a local Washington, D.C., restaurant against Trump in his personal capacity as well as the Trump Organization, takes a different route, but still argues the president may not legally maintain ownership of his businesses while in office.

Scott Rome, a lawyer who helped bring that case and principle at The Veritas Law Firm in D.C., said he’s hopeful at least one of the challenges will succeed.

“We think that these other lawsuits are great, and we welcome more to the party,” Rome said. “It’s obvious that what [Trump] is doing is unethical and a court may or may not approve of each method of requesting that he divest and act ethically, so the more ways to address these issues the better, and hopefully one of them breaks through. We think they’re all correct on the law.”

But other lawyers raise doubt as to whether any of the cases will get very far. David Rivkin Jr., a partner at Baker & Hostetler who served in the White House Counsel’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice during the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Rivkin said all of the lawsuits fall short on both standing grounds and the actual merits.

“These lawsuits have zero prospects for success,” he said. “They would not get even as far down the road as, for example, the anti-executive order litigation.”

That’s a reference to lawsuits challenging the president’s executive orders setting up a travel ban from selected countries, an issue that is now pending at the U.S. Supreme Court after playing out in several district courts and two federal appellate courts. While the business cases may be far from the high court for now, none of the lawsuits challenging Trump’s business dealings have been dismissed yet.

So what are these business lawsuits about and who is involved? Here’s a breakdown of where Trump is being sued, by who and why:

Photo: jiawangkun/

The latest: Blumenthal v. Trump, filed June 14.

Who: The latest emoluments lawsuit is brought by 160 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 30 senators against the president, led by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan. Three lawyers from the Constitutional Accountability Center, a D.C.-based liberal-leaning think tank and legal organization, represent the legislators: Brian Frazelle, Elizabeth Wydra and Brianne Gorod.

The Justice Department is set to represent the president, though it’s unclear who the lawyers will be yet. The DOJ has 60 days to reply to the complaint. The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan. Sullivan was appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, but was nominated to serve on local courts in Washington, D.C., by Reagan and Bush.

What: The lawmakers allege Trump is in violation of the foreign emoluments clause for a variety of reasons, including because foreign governments rent space in his Trump Tower building in New York and state-owned foreign broadcasters pay to air reruns of Trump’s show “The Apprentice.” Because the clause requires “the consent of Congress” to accept emoluments, the lawmakers say Trump has robbed them “of their ability to vote on which emoluments he, as a federal officeholder, may accept,” and they’re entitled to seek “judicial redress.”

Where: The lawsuit is in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and is brought by lawmakers from across the country.

The state-level players: District of Columbia v. Trump, filed June 12.

Who: This lawsuit, also filed this week, was brought by District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh on behalf of their states. The AGs are joined by lawyers in their offices, including Natalie Ludaway in D.C. and Steven Sullivan and Patrick Hughes in Maryland. Like the lawmakers’ suit, DOJ lawyers have yet to reply to the lawsuit; they have 58 days left to do so. The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte, a Clinton nominee.

What: Many agree that if one emoluments case will succeed, it would be this one. That’s because state attorneys general may have stronger standing to bring it than other plaintiffs, especially since the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. That 2006 opinion said states have “special solicitude” to protect their interests and those of their residents. The complaint argues that Trump is violating both the foreign and domestic clauses when his businesses take payments from foreign and domestic governments. The complaint also alleges that in doing so, Trump illegally puts pressure on state and local governments to favor his enterprises.

Where: The case is in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland.

Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

The local team: Cork v. Trump Old Post Office, filed March 9.

Who: A local Washington, D.C. wine bar called Cork, which is located a little over a mile from the Trump International Hotel in the city, brought this lawsuit against Trump in his personal capacity and his company. That means it’s the only case so far in which Trump is not represented by the DOJ but rather by private law firms in a challenge to his business holdings. Trump himself is represented by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius lawyers Allyson Ho, Eric Sitarchuk, Fred Fielding, Jason Scherr and Michael Kenneally. Seyfarth Shaw’s Rebecca Woods is defending Trump Old Post Office LLC, which opened the hotel.

Representing the restaurant are Rome of The Veritas Law Firm, George Washington University Law School professor Alan Morrison, and Mark Zaid and Bradley Moss of the Law Office of Mark S. Zaid.

District Judge Richard Leon, a President George W. Bush nominee, is overseeing the case.

What: This case does not allege a violation of the emoluments clause, nor does it make any federal claim. Cork claims that Trump’s ownership of a hotel in the Old Post Office building in D.C. unfairly diverts business from other establishments there. Trump obtained a lease for the building from the General Services Administration prior to the election.

Where: The case was originally filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Trump’s lawyers removed the case to the federal district court in D.C. on the grounds that Trump is immune from the lawsuit because of his office, an argument under federal law. Cork’s motion to remand the case to the local court is pending before the district judge.

The original crew: CREW v. Trump, filed Jan. 23, 2017.

Who: A nonprofit group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington was the first to file an emoluments lawsuit against Trump. In April, new plaintiffs joined their suit, including a woman who books embassy events for hotels in Washington, D.C., a New York hotel owner and a nonprofit organization that represents hotel employees. CREW is made up of and represented by a team of lawyers including former President Barack Obama ethics lawyer Norm Eisen and George W. Bush ethics lawyer Richard Painter, as well as constitutional law scholars Erwin Chemerinsky, Laurence Tribe and Zephyr Teachout. Also representing the plaintiffs are Daniel Small, Joseph Sellers and Robert Braun of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll and Deepak Gupta, Jonathan Taylor and Matthew Spurlock of Gupta Wessler.

Trump is represented by Justice Department lawyers Jean Lin and James Powers as well as Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad Readler, director of federal programs Jennifer Ricketts and deputy director Anthony Coppolino.

District Judge Ronnie Abrams, an Obama nominee, is overseeing the case.

What: The crux of this lawsuit is that through his vast holdings of hotels, clubs and other businesses, Trump receives payments from the U.S. government and foreign governments. Many doubted the strength of this lawsuit originally, since it was unlikely the private nonprofit could show an injury-in-fact arising from the president’s conflicts of interest. The plaintiff additions strengthened the case. Just last week, the DOJ filed a motion to dismiss the case, in which it argued payments to Trump’s businesses do not constitute emoluments and that none of the plaintiffs have standing.

Where: The case is in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.